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December 12, 2012

Is the US Sentencing Commission soon to be dominated by district judges?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by this new post at The BLT, which is headline "Senate Questions D.C. Federal Court Nominee on Sentencing Guidelines." Here are snippets from the post providing some background for my question:

At a confirmation hearing this morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia judicial nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson fielded questions about her views on how she would handle terrorist detainee cases and how she would use federal sentencing guidelines.

Jackson, vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission since early 2010, was nominated by President Barack Obama in September to fill the seat vacated by now-retired U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. If confirmed, she would fill the sole open judgeship on the court.

Jackson didn't encounter opposition during today's hearing. Even her introduction was bipartisan: she was introduced by Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who recommended Jackson to the White House, and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who is related to Jackson and offered his "unequivocal" support. Before her appointment to the sentencing commission, Jackson was of counsel at Morrison & Foerster. She served as a federal public defender from 2005 to 2007 and as an assistant special counsel to the sentencing commission from 2003 to 2005.... Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked ... Jackson about sentencing practices in the D.C. court, saying he was under the impression that local judges were frequently issuing sentences the departed from federal guidelines. Jackson said the commission was finishing a nationwide analysis of sentencing data, but added that the commission was "concerned" about the trend of more judges issuing sentences outside of the guidelines in certain types of cases. She didn't speak specifically to the D.C. court.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked Jackson about the commission's decision in 2011 to retroactively apply reduced sentencing guidelines for cases involving crack cocaine. She said that the commission is required to consider retroactivity whenever it comes out with reduced guidelines and found that it was appropriate for those cases.

Blumenthal then asked about how Jackson would decide whether to depart from sentencing guidelines. Jackson replied that she didn't find any one factor more persuasive than another — the nature of the offense or a defendants' history, for instance — and would individually evaluate each case.

If — and I sincerely hope when — Commissioner Jackson becomes US Distict Court Judge Jackson, the US Sentencing Commission will then have four federal district judges among its six current commissioners. Though I believe the Commission had four judges as Commissioners for a brief period in the early 1990s, I believe one was a Circuit judge and I am sure the USSC has never had two-thirds of its members serving as active sentencing judges.

I do not think it is a huge problem to have so many district judges on the Commission at once, especially because the current crop is a diverse lot both in terms of experience and perspective.  Nevertheless, because it only takes four votes on the seven-member commission to make decisions, and because there are so many different stakeholders who should have a formal voice in USSC decision-making, I hope President Obama will consider seriously a non-judge nominee for the current open spot on the Commission and for future opennings.

IMPORTANT UPDATE:  A helpful reader reminded me (1) that I had totally forgotten that Prez Obama nominated US District Judge Charles Breyer to the open slot on the USSC earlier this year, though he still awaits full Senate confirmation, and (2) that District Judge Howell and Vice Chair Will Carr are now serving now only in hold-over status and will no longer be on the Commission as of the start of the new Congress.

Assuming District Judge Breyer is confirmed to the USSC and Commissioner Jackson is confirmed as a judge in short order, then as of the start of 2013 the US Sentencing Commission will have four district judges among five active members. If neither is confirmed, then the USSC will have three district judges among four active members.

In accord with sentiments above, I hope not only that all the pending nominations get Senate confirmation, but also that Prez Obama will very early in 2013 name new nomination to fill the soon-to-be empty slots in the Commission with some more great folks who are not now federal district judges.

December 12, 2012 at 04:18 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Keep in mind that President Obama's mission is not to preside over the country's current state, but to fundamentally transform it from a capitalist republic into a global socialist state. Every action he has performed since becoming president has been geared toward that goal, and one important aspect of his crusade is his assigning judges whom will refuse to consider US Constitutional amendments, articles and clauses in favor of a more global document. To that end, sentencing reforms will be secondary as to his need to ensure that he sustains the amount of votes needed.

I realize that this is a generalized, very partisan observation, but I don't see any relief when it comes to establishing normalcy in sentencing and correctional system processes. This is very frightening to me, considering the fragile state of how law and order is skewed both internal and external to the jurisdiction of the 3rd branch.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Dec 13, 2012 2:12:31 AM

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